Trains evoke a sense of romance and mystery, especially when picturing a steam train rambling through rolling green hills, with a plume of smoke trailing behind it.
As a marvel of engineering, trains revolutionized the way humanity connected, shared resources and traveled.
They are also the perfect setting for a mystery or well-contained story as the confined environment immediately adds a claustrophobic and challenging atmosphere.
It makes sense then that storytellers and TV show creators have found inspiration in trains and railroads, as it is such a unique set to play with.
In fact, one of the first pieces of movie footage was of a train – and it was so realistic that the audience ran away from the screen!
From an apocalyptic future to a look at how trains propelled human history, these are some of the best TV shows about trains and railroads. All aboard!
Snowpiercer, TNT (2020 – 2022)
Following the success of the 2013 film of the same name, which in turn was based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, a well-received French graphic novel, the Snowpiercer universe is a fan-favorite.
In a world where a second ice age has ravaged the planet, the last remaining humans are on a continuous journey aboard the Snowpiercer – a train that never stops as it journeys around the frozen globe forever.
However, despite the apocalyptic catastrophe faced by humanity, classism still reigns and the train is divided from wealthiest to most impoverished, with disturbing implications.
A design marvel from its creator, the mysterious Mr. Wilford, the train is apparently propelled by its own perpetual motion – but what happens when time ravages the components of the train and those who are downtrodden seek to rise up from their confines at the back of the train?
This post-apocalyptic series is dark, creative, and a searing social commentary that is well worth the watch.
Train, Orion Cinema Network (2020)
Playing with the idea that trains are a way to another world, the K-Drama Train is a hard-hitting detective show with a supernatural twist.
Protagonist Seo Do Won is a man driven by the sins of his father, working himself to the bone to make up for the guilt he lives with.
When his cases take a strange turn as burned corpses show up at an abandoned train station, our hero becomes enthralled in a multi-universe escapade.
Soon he discovers that the train at this abandoned station is a portal between two worlds, and he decides to pursue a universe-hopping serial killer.
The show is full of twists and mind-bending moments that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat – a mystery worth following.
The Porter, CBC Television (2022)
Taking a look into history, The Porter is set just after World War I and follows the rise of the Brotherhootrain travel tv showsd of Sleeping Car Porters – one of the first black-led labor unions in history.
The 8-episode show is not afraid to show the reality of life for a person of color in the 1920s while making the viewer take a hard look at the cost of real freedom.
In the show, we follow the hardships of train porters in this era – a coveted but grueling job with little appreciation shown for the employees.
As the characters yearn for freedom and success, they go down various paths that ultimately lead them into a political arena.
The show is deep and compelling, with characters that although flawed, ultimately makes us the viewer root for them.
Hell on Wheels, AMC (2016)
History is full of interesting characters that find themselves in the middle of a monumental moment – such as Cullen Bohannon.
Originally a man on a revenge quest against the killers of his wife, he finds himself suddenly embroiled in the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.
As he works his way to the Union soldiers who murdered his wife, he finds meaning as foreman on the project, ultimately becoming the chief engineer!
In the vein of a proper Western, the show parallels the story of Cullen and the railway in a clever way – all set in a town that pays no mind to the law, Hell on Wheels.
The National Dream: Building the Impossible Railway, CBC (1974)
The construction of the amazing railways that connect continents, states, and even towns, was a massive project that we often take for granted in the modern age.
Creating the infrastructure to send tons of steel hurtling across plains and mountains is an engineering feat that deserves airtime, and in The National Dream, we get to see how the Canadian Pacific Railway came to be.
The show is an 8-part docuseries with a staggering budget for 1974 that broke records when it first aired for its number of viewers.
Follow Pierre Berton as he traces not only the technical skill required but also the political landscape that aided in the construction of Canada’s first transcontinental railway.
Jericho, ITV (2016)
Set during the 1870s, Jericho follows the residents of the small town of the same name who are brought together by a common cause – to build a viaduct in order to connect a railway.
Under the shadow of this massive construction project, the people of the town all harbor secrets and a yearning for a new start.
Each character came to Jericho for their own reason, and audiences will find their favorites among the cast.
What makes the show unique is that it is a Western set in a British atmosphere – rough, rowdy, and lawless, Jericho is an intriguing watch with a one-of-a-kind premise.
Wagon Train, NBC (1957 – 1965)
One of the original TV shows about trains, Wagon Train is an 8-season Western show that held the number one spot during its run.
In the show, we follow a wagon train heading West all the way from Missouri to California.
The show had different themes and new guest stars regularly, as the episodes would revolve around members of the train.
To this day, it is a cult favorite and has been re-released in various forms across the decades, and it even served as inspiration for Star Trek!
Casey Jones, BBC (1957 – 1958)
The history of trains has no shortage of fascinating characters to inspire epic tales and one such person is Casey Jones – an engineer in the late 19th century.
Along with the crew of the Cannonball Express, the show follows his exploits and adventures in a fictionalized setting.
Race to win a mailing contract, or watch as Casey and his crew deftly transport gold bullion.
The show is a fun romp across the railroads with Western tropes like robberies and shoot-outs, albeit in a much more gentle way.
Casey Jones is more focused on family values and wholesome storytelling.
The Underground Railroad, Amazon Prime Video (2021)
The Underground Railroad, based on the Colson Whitehead novel, is a 10-episode miniseries that follows Cora, a slave in the 1800s trying to escape slavery and find her way to freedom.
Using the style of magic realism, the creators effectively condense a very complex piece of history into a visually compelling story that portrays the harrowing nature of the past with the right tone.
The real underground railroad is a metaphor for the vast network of safe houses and hidden routes that were utilized in freeing slaves, but in the series, it takes the form of an actual underground railroad, where our young protagonist boards along with fellow escapee Caesar.
The Great Train Robbery, BBC One (2013)
This 2-part drama is a take on one of history’s greatest robberies, the eponymous Great Train Robbery of 1963 told from the side of the robbers and police in stand-alone episodes.
The first episode, A Robber’s Tale, follows the events before and after the event and how the group of robbers came together to execute their plan.
Conversely, A Copper’s Tale starts on the day of the robbery and tells the story of six Scotland Yard investigators as they try to track down the aforementioned group.
This is such a unique way to tell a story and really draws the viewer in as the search for the most wanted men in Britain at the time ramps up.
Quai n°1, France 2 (1997 – 2006)
Trains are great vehicles for a terrific crime story and in Quai n°1 we are given ample stories of crime and badass detective work.
Follow Commissioner Marie Saint-Georges of the Special Trains and Borders Brigade as she sets out to solve crimes and keep the peace on the rails of her division.
There is also a compelling backstory, as our protagonist is an orphan raised by railway workers who found her abandoned in the station. Perhaps this plays a bigger part in the overall story?
Tune in and solve the mystery with her.
Murder on The Orient Express, Fuji TV (2015)
Perhaps one of the most famous train stories, Murder on The Orient Express is author Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunit novel, and this Japanese adaptation also known as Orient Kyuukou Satsujin Jiken is a mix of true-to-text and original storytelling.
Suguru Takero, the show’s mustachioed take on Hercule Poroit, investigates two murder mysteries over the course of two nights.
On the first night, we follow the traditional story, but on the second night, things take an original turn, much to the delight of the audience.
Supertrain, NBC (1979)
What happens when you pour every luxury imaginable into a super-sized train that runs on nuclear power?
You get the Supertrain.
More akin to the opulence of a cruise ship, the train runs on a broad gauge track built specifically for it from the East to West Coast with a stop in between at places like Chicago and Denver.
The show is one of the most expensive for its time, and though it had a limited run, it made history for its innovative take on sci-fi.
Aboard the Supertrain, we follow the social lives of passengers, and crew members as well as the intrigue that brews in these situations.
Most of the nine episodes boasted guest stars, which keeps the drama fresh.
Each episode can be thought of as a stand-alone story with a few familiar faces in between. Whether solving a murder, rescuing an abductee, or simply rooting for a romance, the show is a vintage but fun ride.
Time Express, CBS (1979)
Another edition to the fantasy and sci-fi genre, Time Express is an anthology-style series, where each episode features two stories with guest actors.
Each episode would open with a character receiving an invitation to travel through time to a pivotal moment in their lives.
According to the instructions from the “Head of The Line”, the characters would be directed to the special services desk at the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal.
From here they would be given a chance to relive this moment, with a caveat on the dangers of time travel added of course, and upon their return, they can see the implications of their actions. It’s the ghost of Christmas past with real-world consequences.
Would you fix a mistake from the past? What if you found money that didn’t belong to you, would the guilt let you take the chance to give it back?
The Galaxy Railways, BS Fuji (2003 – 2004)
Set in a futuristic world, The Galaxy Railways goes off the rails – literally.
In this anime, trains can traverse the universe from planet to planet. Of course, just because the trains have taken to the skies, doesn’t mean they left the drama behind.
We follow protagonist Manabu Yuuki, a new recruit to the Space Defence Force (SDF), an elite group whose sole purpose is to guard these interplanetary vehicles against villainous activities.
Soon they realize that it is not just run-of-the-mill criminals that threaten the passengers, but a larger menace looms.
The show delves into concepts of destiny, and fate and is not afraid to talk frankly about death.
The success of the anime spawned numerous sequels and continuations such as the film Galaxy Express 999 and the series The Galaxy Railways: Crossroads to Eternity in 2006.
Rail Wars!, TBS (2014)
In this anime set in alternate Japan, we follow Naoto Takayama, a high school student who yearns to work for Japanese National Railways – as it guarantees a steady income and comfortable life.
He ultimately joins as a security force trainee, and soon finds himself embroiled in some strange cases with his strange new colleagues – along with a group of extremists who want to privatize the railways going by the initials RJ.
Infinity Train, Cartoon Network (2019 – 2021)
On a train that is seemingly endless, rambling along a barren world, we find a collection of quirky and magical cars – this is Infinity Train.
The mystery of this train is that all its passengers are facing emotional hardships and as they make their way from car to car, they are presented with these issues and a way to resolve this.
Upon the success of their confrontation, a glowing number on their hands will count down, and at zero they can return to the normal world.
The show is surprisingly deep, with themes like divorce and death.
Our protagonist, Tulip in season one sets a series of events in motion that ultimately leads to a coup, a cultish group of rogues and a lot of grabs for power.
A lot of intrigues for a vehicle of self-help wouldn’t you say?
Galaxy Express 999, Animax (2004 – 2005)
Another take in trains venturing into space, Galaxy Express 999 is set in a futuristic world where a young boy, Tetsuro, explores a variety of new worlds.
However, he has a deeper motive for his travels; he wants to reach the Immortal Planet so that he can fulfill his dream of replacing his human body with a robotic body!
He yearns for the immortality it gives him in order to avenge the death of his mother, who was tragically gunned down by robot men.
Along this journey, he is joined by a mysterious Russian woman, who looks a bit like his mother, who helps as they arrive at new planets every episode.
With time, he begins to question his choices as his new exposure to the magical planets and new friends allows him to rethink his perspective on life.
Ghost Train, ITV (1989 – 1991)
What would a list of TV shows about trains be without a quick detour to the supernatural?
In Ghost Train, we meet presenter Frances Dodge who inherits a ghost train from her grandmother.
In her adventures with the train, she finds Gerard, a presenter for aliens and a talking sheep too!
Sadly some not-so-savory characters enter the fray as Barry Mafia and his gang are constantly scheming to steal the train away from her.
As these schemes play out in the background, the actual show also doubles as a variety feature, with live musical guests and introducing famous shows like Scooby-Doo and The Trap Door.
Thomas & Friends, ITV (1984 – 2021)
And lastly, where would we be with Thomas the Tank Engine?
The famous children’s show, and inspiration for a thousand memes, is about Thomas, an anthropomorphized tank engine, and his friends who reside at North Western Railway.
The show has a long history with television and has been broadcast in many forms – whether shorts in between shows or even standalone episodes, the lineup of Thomas & Friends is astounding.
Many don’t know that Thomas first appeared in The Railways Series of books by author Rev. W. Awdry, and no one expected the sassy little blue train and his short stumpy funnel to take off the way he did.